View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (Photo: Marvel)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971). Although best known as the Oscar-winning director of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, Robert Wise dabbled in horror and science fiction as well, creating such gems as 1945’s The Body Snatcher (reviewed here), 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, and 1963’s The Haunting. He bookended the 1970s with a pair of sci-fi efforts that have been praised in some quarters and criticized in others for their leisurely pacing and almost fetishistic attention to futuristic hardware. I’m among the supporters, finding much to admire in both 1971’s The Andromeda Strain and 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the case of Andromeda, it was based on Michael Crichton’s first bestselling novel, although its slick and sterile visuals appear to take their cue from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released three years earlier. A U.S. satellite crashlands in a small New Mexican town, where its arrival kills everyone with the seemingly inexplicable exception of an elderly drunk and a newborn baby. It’s determined that the satellite brought back a deadly organism from outer space, and it’s tasked to four handpicked scientists (Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson and Kate Reid) to hole up in an underground facility and not only isolate the lethal strain but also work out how to neutralize it. Aside from a climactic race against the clock, The Andromeda Strain foregoes the usual thriller elements to fashion a thoughtful drama that ultimately serves as a condemnation of this country’s constant obsession with warfare. This earned a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; overlooked were the efforts by the visual effects team (including 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Earthquake’s Albert Whitlock).
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette from 2001; a 2001 piece on Crichton; and highlights from Nelson Gidding’s annotated and illustrated shooting script.
CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019). The mere existence of this box office behemoth predictably triggered those male mouth-breathers who felt that having one MCU film out of 22 that focused exclusively on a female superhero was excessive and overreaching, just as having one MCU film out of 22 that focused exclusively on a black superhero was outrageous and unfair. But ignore the imbecilic MRAs, frightened fanboys, and all the other insecure dude-bro crackers shellacked in misogyny: The truth is that this film — part space opera, part earthbound adventure — is reams of fun and, significantly, no different in quality from past solo superhero flicks produced by Marvel. One of its most appealing aspects is the humor as exemplified by Brie Larson’s fine performance as Carol Danvers; it’s decidedly on the sly side, which marks it as a nice change of pace from such overt jokesters as Tony Stark and Peter Parker. (Oh, yes, rumors to the contrary, Larson smiles in this movie. A lot.) Equally amusing — and ingratiating — is Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Nick Fury. This isn’t the Fury who pops up for a few moments to bark orders and make sarcastic asides. Rather, it’s a looser version of the stoic character than we’re used to seeing, and it’s to the credit of the screenwriters (five total, including co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) that Jackson is allowed more room than usual to test-run this other side of the persona. The plotting isn’t the film’s strongest suit — it’s par for the course with an MCU offering, with the expected origin beats, the usual CGI slugfests, and the normal plot twists that won’t knock anyone out of their seats. But the attention to characterization makes up for it, particularly Danvers’ journey toward becoming a formidable female who ultimately realizes that she doesn’t need to answer to anyone.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Boden and Fleck; various behind-the-scenes pieces; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
CAPTIVE STATE (2019). Despite nods in the direction of worthy endeavors like Attack the Block and District 9, Captive State is basically a World War II picture reconfigured for a sci-fi crowd, with outer space invaders cast as the Nazis and humans repping the two sides of the French flip: resistance fighters and collaborators. While the word “Vichy” never comes up, “collaborators” is applied to those people who dutifully serve the extra-terrestrials rather than fight them. As for the aliens, collaborators call them “legislators” while dissidents tag them “roaches,” even if their physical appearance more resembles a sea urchin, or a porcupine, or John Travolta’s pre-combed hair in the animated sequence that opens Grease. The film seemingly offers more characters than were found in the entire 57 seasons of Guiding Light, but chief among them is a Chicago cop (John Goodman) tasked with tracking down dissidents; a young man (Ashton Sanders) who finds himself in the middle of sticky situations; and a prostitute (Vera Farmiga) with a portrait of a Trojan horse in her living room. That painting is more of a spoiler than writer-director Rupert Wyatt probably intended, since its presence points toward the twist that will pop out of the cake in the last act (it also doesn’t help that a likable performer has been cast as a “heavy,” thereby also spoiling the surprise). But Captive State has problems from start to finish. Its only true narrative innovation is that the aliens have dismantled all cutting-edge technology on the order of computers and cell phones, requiring humans to again rely on landlines and (woo-hoo!) print newspapers. Otherwise, the film suffers from a murky presentation, draggy pacing, and threadbare characters ultimately reduced to rigid chess pieces.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Wyatt, and a pair of making-of featurettes.
THE ENTITY (1983). Like Jay Anson’s novel The Amityville Horror, Frank De Felitta’s The Entity promoted itself as being based on a true story, thereby leading millions of gullible dopes to buy the book and vault it to the top of the bestsellers list. But whereas many experts have come forth over the years to call b.s. on the suspicious supernatural shenanigans at play in Amityville, few have bothered with The Entity, presumably because it’s such a daft story in the first place that there’s no saving those who fell for it. The screen version of The Entity, directed by Sidney J. Furie (who effectively murdered the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) and scripted by De Felitta himself, likewise tries to pass itself off as being as cemented in fact as, say, In Cold Blood or Gandhi, but it shouldn’t fool anyone. This wouldn’t matter as much if the movie actually delivered the goods, but in relating the saga of a single mother (Barbara Hershey) who’s repeatedly raped by an unseen spirit with particularly nasty body odor, it comes off as excessive and manipulative rather than absorbing and effective. The special effects run hot-and-cold, with the most risible moments occurring with Hershey’s obviously fake (i.e. prosthetic) nude body, the one whose breasts are being fondled by the malevolent masher. Hershey, however, delivers an excellent performance, although no one else rises to her level (least of all a sleepy Ron Silver as her doctor).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by author Daniel Kremer (Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films); new interviews with Hershey, co-star David Labiosa, composer Charles Bernstein, and editor Frank J. Urioste; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967). While all eight films in Universal’s Frankenstein series (1931-1948) kept the focus on the monster, all seven entries in Hammer’s Frankenstein franchise (1957-1974) centered instead on the scientist, with Baron Frankenstein creating a string of creatures who would all eventually perish under gruesome circumstances. In Frankenstein Created Woman, the fourth and middle film in the Hammer series, the good doctor (played, as always, by Peter Cushing) has discovered a way to isolate the human soul and transfer it into another person’s body. As expected, he requires corpses for his experiment, so it’s fortuitous that his young assistant Hans (Robert Morris) has been falsely accused of murder by three members of the One-Percent Class and is quickly executed. And it’s equally as lucky that Hans’ girlfriend, the facially scarred Christina (Susan Denberg), is so distraught over the fate of her beau that she commits suicide. With his associate, the good-hearted Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), offering reluctant assistance, Baron Frankenstein attempts to place Hans’ soul in Christina’s body, not realizing that his test subjects will be less interested in revolutionizing science and more interested in bloody revenge. A solid entry in the Frankenstein franchise, this could use a lot more Cushing (who’s typically superb in the role), but it nevertheless maintains interest with its surprisingly touching love story while also offering the usual catharsis when the despicable dandies pay for their sins.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Morris, co-star Derek Fowlds and film historian Jonathan Rigby; a new interview with Morris; World of Hammer episodes “The Curse of Frankenstein” and “Peter Cushing”; Hammer Glamour, a piece on the studio’s leading ladies; and theatrical trailers.
GRETA (2019). A tepid thriller that begins promisingly before simultaneously jumping the tracks, jumping the shark, and jumping off a cliff, Greta casts Chloë Grace Moretz as Frances, a sweet kid living in NYC with her more assertive roommate (Maika Monroe). Still coping with the death of her mother and miffed at her dad (Colm Feore) for moving on, Frances one day discovers a handbag that’s been left on a subway car and returns it to its owner: Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a Frenchwoman with a deceased husband and an estranged daughter. They soon become friends, but once Frances learns she’s being deceived, she abruptly ends the relationship. Or so she thinks. What initially promises to be a psychological thriller soon sheds any pretensions and emerges as yet another dumdum schlockbuster that’s short on logic but towering in terms of obvious twists, minimal suspense, and unintended camp. The plotholes (particularly the one needed to jump-start the climax) are so deep that a broken leg is a possibility when viewing this thing, and character development is painted in broad strokes (the biggest victim is the father played by Feore, whose dimensions are teased then dropped, much like the character itself). Moretz and Monroe deliver earnest performances, and they’re especially ingratiating together — in fact, they’re so comfortable with each other that I originally assumed they were lesbian lovers before I remembered this was a mainstream American movie and there would be more chance of seeing neo-Nazis or serial killers as sympathetic protagonists before witnessing heroic homosexuals. As for Huppert’s performance, that’s a matter of taste. Many will love seeing her go the looney-tunes route with her ham-on-wry turn, but others will feel slightly embarrassed that she’s camping it up in a role in which she’s ultimately miscast.
Blu-ray extras consist of deleted scenes and a making-of piece.
SHAFT TRIPLE FEATURE (1971-1973). With the new Shaft (itself a follow-up to the 2000 Shaft) set to open in theaters this weekend (see review here), the Warner Archive Collection has wisely decided to make the ‘70s trilogy available on Blu-ray. The original 1971 Shaft first hit Blu back in 2012 but returns to share space on the Shaft Triple Feature with 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score! and 1973’s Shaft in Africa, both making their debuts in this format. (The sequels are available individually as well as part of this triple play.)
One of the best of all blaxploitation flicks, Shaft was polished enough to enjoy crossover appeal as well as nab an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Isaac Hayes’ irresistible “Theme from Shaft.” Directed by Gordon Parks Jr. and co-scripted by Ernest Tidyman from his own novel (Tidyman had a stellar ’71, winning an Oscar for penning The French Connection), this finds dapper private eye John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) hired to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a local crime boss (Moses Gunn).
Like its predecessor, Shaft’s Big Score! was a box office hit, but some of the luster had already worn off the enterprise. Roundtree again makes for a compelling hero, but the storyline, which finds Shaft investigating the murder of a friend, grows less interesting as it progresses and culminates with the sort of overblown action finale that might give even James Bond pause. The series gets back on track with Shaft in Africa, which proved to be a commercial disappointment despite including some of the series’ best moments. In this one, Shaft bounces around from New York City to Ethiopia to Paris, all in an effort to bust open a modern-day slave ring.
Blu-ray extras include a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette for Shaft and theatrical trailers for all three films.
Shaft’s Big Score!: **1/2
Shaft in Africa: ***
A STAR IS BORN ENCORE (2018). Apparently, every generation needs a version of A Star Is Born to call its own, and this latest one ably demonstrates that good stories never die, they just patiently rest as filmmakers figure out how to bring back their sparkle. In this case, it’s writer-director-producer-actor Bradley Cooper who deserves most of the credit. Yet his greatest achievement turns out to be his generous support of Lady Gaga, a revelation in her first significant movie role. Jackson Maine (Cooper) is an established music star whose career trajectory might be on the descent, particularly when his alcoholic tendencies are added to the equation. He ends up taking an amateur singer-songwriter named Ally (Lady Gaga) under his wing, leading to a relationship that flourishes on both the professional and personal levels. But there’s always the booze hovering around the edges, a complication that concerns not only Ally but also Jackson’s brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott). A Star Is Born is stellar entertainment, taking an old tale and miraculously making it sing anew. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress), this earned the Best Original Song Oscar for “Shallow” and should have won Best Supporting Actor for Elliott’s formidable, career-capping turn.
Although A Star Is Born was just released on Blu-ray this past February, Warner has already served up another edition, titled A Star Is Born Encore. In addition to the theatrical cut, it also contains an extended version that runs 12 extra minutes and includes more musical footage. Unfortunately, the extras found on the previous Blu-ray (a making-of featurette and music videos) have been jettisoned.
WONDER PARK (2019). “So did Wonder Park direct itself?” might be the expected sneer from any viewer alert enough to notice that this animated feature has no helmer listed in its credits. Dylan Brown directed the film, but after he was accused of inappropriate sexual advances, Paramount fired him and released the picture without a directorial tag. In this era in which many are striving to be more socially responsible, it was a necessary removal, and it’s perhaps ironic that it was from a film about a bright girl who fights hard not to let herself be damaged by the circumstances surrounding her. The child is June (Brianna Denski), whose loving mom (Jennifer Garner) has joined her daughter in creating (via drawings, models and pure imagination) an amusement park run by anthropomorphic animals like the chimpanzee Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz), the boar Greta (Mila Kunis), and the porcupine Steve (John Oliver). But once Mom takes ill and leaves home for medical attention, June becomes increasingly depressed and inconsolable. And when she stumbles across an actual Wonderland, she notices that it’s no longer a place of joy, as the park denizens are having to deal with an army of chimpanzombies. A product of the Nickelodeon studio, Wonder Park of course has a gentle and positive message at its center, but it counts for little when cushioned in a film as blasé as this one. The story isn’t particularly interesting, the critters aren’t exactly engaging, and the animation isn’t especially appealing. Peanut the chimpanzee is mostly on the creepy side, appearing less likely to play with the kiddies and more likely to whip out a razor like the capuchin in George Romero’s Monkey Shines and start slashing everything in sight.
Blu-ray extras include a deleted scene; a guide to Wonderland; a sing-along; and lessons on how to draw the characters.